By Donella Meadows
–December 4, 2011–
When leaders in socialist countries wonder why their people are disaffected, when my conservative friends tell me how lazy and undeserving the poor are, when my liberal friends tell me how greedy and scheming the rich are, I wish they could all play Starpower.
Starpower is a deceptively simple classroom game. I have played it all over the world, with communists and capitalists, with businessmen and college students. No matter who plays, the results are roughly the same.
The game starts with players drawing colored chips from a bag. Different color combinations have different point values. The players trade chips, trying to increase their point counts. Very ordinary. Slightly boring.
After the first round, those with the most points are given, with much fanfare, badges with big purple squares on them. The lowest scorers get badges with demeaning green triangles. Those in the middle wear red circles.
Then comes the insidious part. For the next trading round the Squares draw from a bag laced with high-value chips. The Triangles’ bag has low-value chips. After this round a few players change fortunes and switch to a higher or lower group, but mostly the Squares stay Squares, the Triangles stay Triangles, and the gap between them widens.
At this point the Squares are given the power to change the rules. They can reshuffle the chip bags, give away free points, do whatever they like. They can consult the other players on rule changes, if they want to.
They almost never want to.
Predictably, and usually gleefully, the Squares rig the game to favor Squares. The Circles concentrate on elevating themselves to become Squares, so they can bend the rules in favor of Circles. But the few Circles who do gain the hallowed status of Squares start to act like Squares.
The poor Triangles, with less and less power, wealth, or hope, first get angry, then apathetic. They sit around waiting for this dumb game to be over. They come to life only if they think up a way of cheating or of creating a revolution. Only subversion brings out their interest and creativity.
After about an hour the game is stopped and the players talk about what happened. There is usually an emotional outburst. “I can’t believe how much I hate you guys!” a Triangle says to the Squares. “Why? We were managing things pretty well!” a Square replies in honest surprise.
The Squares seldom see how systematically they oppressed everyone. The Triangles are a mass of smoldering resentment. The Circles are shocked to discover that Triangles consider them materialistic sell-outs, while Squares look down on them as incompetent pseudo-Squares.
A simple, unpleasant game. A crude representation of a much-more-complicated world. Unforgettable to those who play. It’s one thing to know intellectually about social classes. It’s another to spend an hour experiencing the rage of a Triangle or the self-righteousness of a Square.
When tempers have cooled, I find that surprising insights remain. Having watched myself act like a Square or Triangle, I have to admit that my behavior depends greatly on where in the social structure I sit. Nearly anyone exposed to Square perceptions, pressures, and rewards acts like a Square. Nearly any Triangle gets apathetic.
Those few who don’t are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. “This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring,” she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren’t mean people, they were just Squares.
Suppose we could admit that most of us act as we do because of our places in the system. Suppose we turned our energy from blaming each other to blaming the structure of the games we play. Starpower games — games in which the winners gain ever more power to win again — occur everywhere, on both the Right and the Left. Two places where they are most entrenched are South Africa and the Soviet Union, where Squares are insufferably sanctimonious, Triangles are totally alienated, and the only imaginable futures are continued brute oppression or explosion.
Who wants to play that kind of game? The Squares, maybe, but even Squares discover that games where the score is not occasionally set back to 0-0, where the starting line is not even, where the outcome is always predictable, and where winning is no sign of real merit, are deeply unsatisfying.
The wise Squares whom we call Founding Fathers, who set up the rules of our national game, knew that. They invented ingenious devices for giving everyone a chance to win — democratic elections, universal education, and a Bill of Rights. Out of their structure have come further methods for interrupting accumulations of power — anti-trust regulations, progressive taxation, inheritance restrictions, affirmative action programs.
All of which, you might note, have been weakened over the past decade or so. We have moved a long way toward a Starpower structure. One one the worst steps in that direction was the evolution of expensive, television-mediated election campaigns, which permit only Squares to run for office. That puts Squares increasingly in control of the rules, and they make rules to benefit Squares.
Is that the game we want to be playing?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986